Kentucky, Davis have the final say

As he made his way back to the court for the second half, Bill Self cast a dumbfounded gaze at the box score. It made no sense. Kansas hadn’t played badly. Still, Self’s squad found itself down 14.

What’s more, the best player on the floor – Kentucky’s Anthony Davis – hadn’t even scored. As it happened, Self wasn’t alone in pondering these statistical anomalies. The press box had been buzzing, with writers asking each other if it were possible: Could a guy go scoreless in the title game and still be Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four?

In Davis’s case, the answer would’ve been yes. It didn’t come to that, of course. He hit a foul shot 4 1/2 minutes into the second half, and scored his first basket – off a jump shot – with 5:13 remaining.

By then, Davis already had one of the great, odd lines in the history of the championship game: 15 rebounds, five assists, three steals and six blocks. Unknown was the number of shots he hadn’t blocked, but altered. Kentucky was up 15.

It’s worth noting now that Kansas made a game of it. But the Jayhawks’ run ended, with 23 seconds left, as Davis ran out at Elijah Johnson. A junior, Johnson had three 3-pointers on the evening and was readying his fourth, a basket that would’ve brought Kansas within four. But something about Davis running at him – ferocity combined with wingspan – caused Johnson to lose his composure. He traveled.

It was another game-changing play that wouldn’t register alongside Davis’ name in the box score of Kentucky’s 67-59 championship-clinching victory.

"For a guy scored six points," Self said, "he did control the paint."

That’s not to say the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player played a flawless game. Far from it. He shot poorly and seemed to tire down the stretch. But that, as much as anything, epitomized the virtues – and, yes, I mean that – of John Calipari’s first national championship team.

This is Calipari’s fourth Final Four. Kentucky blew a game last year to the eventual champion, UConn. His Memphis team squandered the 2008 title, collapsing in the last minute of regulation. But this team wasn’t plagued by missed free throws. This team didn’t lose its poise. This team never became soft or selfish or doubtful.

"I love the fact that Anthony Davis went 1 for 10 and you all are saying he was the biggest factor in the game," Calipari said. "We were not just a talented team. We were a defensive team, and we shared the ball. I wanted to show everyone that."

And now he has. Say what you want about Calipari: his two vacated Final Fours (one at UMass, another at Memphis), his quest for an NBA paycheck, and his aptitude for exploiting the rules (other coaches only wish they could do it that well).

But if you value the highest level of basketball, if you value teamwork and selfless play, then recognize this team for what it is. Or was. Six players are soon expected to declare for the NBA. Three of them are freshmen, two sophomores. They’re not mature, certainly not by age and experience. But Calipari got them to play wise beyond their years.

Stakes are high. Egos are fragile. And college-age kids shouldn’t be expected not to be knuckleheads. Still, none of these student-athletes (a phrase the NCAA uses without shame or irony) ever played as if he were auditioning for the NBA. That’s an accomplishment. That’s coaching. You may not like Calipari. But the coaching he’s done this season is worthy of great respect.

"They trust me, and what I’m telling them is in their best interests," he said. "Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis take the fifth- and fourth-most shots on our team. That says something."

Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist, a 6-foot-7 guard who scored 11 points on five shots, are expected to go 1-2 in the draft.

They’ll also serve as an example to the next generation of Calipari recruits. Giving up the ball isn’t just the right way to play the game. It’s good business.

After Calipari’s first season in Lexington, UK had five players drafted in the first round. Calipari, as he recalled late Monday, declared it "one of the biggest moments, if not the biggest, in Kentucky history."

If the salesman-coach has a gift for overstatement, he wasn’t admitting it now. Rather, looking back, he feels the same way, just more: "I knew other kids would look and say, ‘You got to go there.’ What I’m hoping is there’s six first-rounders on this team. We were the first program to have five. Why not six? I’m fine with that."

"We just got along," said Terrence Jones, the 6-9 sophomore built like a superhero. "No one cared who got the accolades."

"I don’t care about the spotlight," said Doron Lamb, who led both teams in scoring with 22 points on 12 shots.

"Everybody is talking about me, but it was my teammates," said Davis, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

"I’ve got to go recruiting," Calipari said.